BOSTON -- Four days earlier, he reached into the coach's toolbox and pulled out the motivational technique labeled "critical." With his team staring at a double-digit halftime deficit at Madison Square Garden, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers purposely needled his players, suggesting they were "soft," a word he later admitted he couldn't remember uttering during the Big Three era.
An offended bunch of veterans responded with a 10-point victory over the New York Knicks.
Rivers acknowledged Friday that he probably screams more than most would imagine, but needing to motivate his team yet again, he decided against reaching into the toolbox for the "angry" folder after the Celtics endured their most embarrassing loss of the season with a pathetic effort in an 83-81 defeat to the Charlotte Bobcats at TD Garden.
Instead, Rivers said he walked into the locker room, told his troops the practice time for Saturday, then left them to their own devices. He saved his harshest words for the interview room, knowing full well the message will find its way back to his players without his having to shout in their faces.
How the Celtics respond this time is almost completely on the players.
"[It's on them], not me or any coach," Rivers said. "Themselves. I've used [motivation] before, but sometimes you have to find your way. The guys have to. They have to be honest with each other first, though. Until that happens, we are going to have these results."
Rivers isn't absolving himself from blame; in fact he suggested repeatedly that he needs to figure out why he's not getting the most out of his team right now. But he also admitted that he's as discouraged as he's been during the Big Three era with the lack of focus and poor execution of a team that has dropped six of its past 10 games and is seeing a chance at the top seed in the Eastern Conference slip away.
"The way we're playing shocks me," Rivers said. "Our attitude shocks me. We're just not ready to win any games right now the way we play, the way our approach is to basketball games. I told them that with about five minutes left. I said, 'If we win, great, you find your own way.'
"Right now I just think we've become very, very selfish. Not as far as trying to get our own, but everything is about how we're playing individually instead of how the team is playing. You can see it; a guy struggles, he pouts, he moans. Everything is 'me, me, me' on our team right now. Feeling sorry for themselves instead of giving themselves to the team and playing."
To call the first three quarters of Friday's game snooze-worthy might be an understatement. The Celtics and Bobcats limped through 36 listless minutes, but Boston's Glen Davis fueled a late third-quarter run that put the Celtics ahead by 13. A Charlotte team that had its own playoff dreams stomped two nights earlier in Indiana was in prime position to roll over and endure its fifth consecutive loss, while the Celtics were dusting off their dancing shoes on a night that seemed Gino-approved.
Instead, the Celtics watched Charlotte embark on a 16-0 run during the fourth quarter, then had to scramble back from a late five-point deficit. By then, the Bobcats had confidence, and Dante Cunningham buried a wide-open 14-foot jumper (after Paul Pierce's fly-by as he scrambled to defend) for an 82-81 advantage with 33.9 seconds to play. It proved to be the winner.
Ray Allen, who missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the closing seconds, was the first to admit that the Celtics, himself included, can't feel sorry for themselves when shots aren't falling and things aren't going right.
"I don't think at any point you should hang your head," Allen said. "When anything goes wrong, we count on everybody. Somebody's having a tough night, whether they have a tough matchup or they're not making shots, we always have enough help for somebody to help carry the load."
Is Allen concerned that Boston might not get back on track with the regular season winding down?
"I'm not concerned," Allen said. "Obviously, it's a frustration level that we're at right now, and we just have to get on and start doing it. But again, I think we just need to not think about it and let it weigh on us. Going out there and playing basketball, you're enjoying playing this game and having guys that can help make plays and do great things on the basketball court. I don't let it weigh on me too heavily because I know where we need to be and we have the formula. We've just got to get out of our own heads."
A ship navigating troubled waters turns to its captain, and Pierce mirrored Rivers' technique in not taking a confrontational approach with his teammates following the game.
"It's not going to be no 'get up and yell in all these guys' faces,'" said Pierce. "We can talk about it, Doc's talked about it. You can see it on everybody's face. We know. We know. We know it's frustrating. Everybody's frustrated. Nobody's happy to lose the game, but at the same time we've got to want to finish out the season strong, and it's got to come from everybody at the end of the day."
Rivers brushed off comparisons to last season, pointing out that the Celtics struggled down the stretch then because of a calculated move to let ailing stars rest before the playoffs.
And while Rivers admitted his troops might be bored with the process yet again, he seemed incredulous that they might get lackadaisical in a race for a top seed in the East, particularly after how the 2009-10 season ended last June.
"Last year we lost Game 7 on the road," Rivers noted.
Despite his frustrations, Rivers remains unwavering in his belief that this team can accomplish its ultimate goal of an NBA title.
"I always do -- always," Rivers said. "Even when we lost 18 in a row [in 2006-07], I thought, 'Geez, we're winning the next one.' That's a coach's job.
"I know what we have in the locker room is good enough to win a title, as far as talent. I also know that right now, in our minds, we're not good enough. Until we move to that next step -- they were there earlier in the year and they were there other parts -- but right now they are not."
There's no sense in Rivers' getting all worked up when he's convinced his team will get back there again.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.